Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Prioritizing--not always easy

By Pamela

One of the best things about summer is having all my kids home.
One of the worst things about summer is having all my kids home.

Honestly, I can hardly type that second line without mommy-guilt spilling onto the keyboard. But summertime does pose a different schedule than what I'm used to with college-boy floating in and out between his work shifts, high school senior son working/practicing soccer/hanging around and third-grade daughter keeping them both in line.

My college sophomore son told me he spends most of his hours at work dreaming about his passion. As a jazz guitar major, he'd much rather be home composing music than scooping ice cream at a resort. But he understands that keyboards, drum machines and mixing boards cost money, so he's working a job he loathes to further a career he loves. He asked me the other day if I felt bad for not working on my novel much lately.

My son--the musician
"Didn't you think you'd be published by now?" he asked.

"Well, I am published, just not fiction," I clarified. As a freelance writer, I've published hundreds of articles, but he was referring to my manuscript(s). "Yes, I'd love to be a novelist, but right now I have to think about what's best for our family. Working a writing job where I'm paid now as opposed to working on my novel which might pay me later has taken precedence."

He nodded in understanding and I went on to explain the similarities between his situation and mine. While we both have dreams of being someplace else career-wise, we're devoted to what has to be accomplished right now.

Later that evening as I heard him upstairs playing his newly-purchased keyboard--which took about 90 hours of manual labor to purchase--I decided it was the perfect time for me to open up my manuscript and start writing ... the story I'm dreaming of seeing published.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Guest Blogger: Erika Robuck

by Joan

Over the last several months, I’ve corresponded with Erika Robuck online via Facebook and through our respective blog comment sections. I first noticed her when we both ran a review of Kate Morton’s Distant Hours around the same time. After sharing some favorite titles, it seems we share a lot of the same taste in books, steering toward stories which weave together the past and the present. I also learned we hail from the same state, Maryland. So I was thrilled when she agreed to run a guest blog for us.

About Erika (from her website):
Erika is an historical fiction writer. Her first novel, RECEIVE ME FALLING, was released in March of 2009. She is also thrilled to announce a two-book deal with NAL/Penguin for her novel, HEMINGWAY'S GIRL, and another historical novel.

Erika has a keen interest in all things historical, and spends her time reading, writing, researching for her writing, and visiting local, national, and international historic sites.

Erika guest blogs at Writer Unboxed and There Are No Rules, and has a reading and writing blog at Wordpress. She is represented by literary agent, Kevan Lyon.

I am so thrilled for her and anxious to read Hemingway’s Girl when it hits the shelves next year. Thanks again to Erika for stopping by What Women Write.


Erika Robuck

It must have started with the old chest in the basement of my grandparents’ house. While my family’s laughter and conversation was a distant echo above me, I fumbled with the clasp on the chest’s polished wood and opened the lid, releasing the smell of antiquity and travel, old papers and photographs. The odor of that musty air excited the thrill of discovery in me. It showed me that my grandparents, who seemed impossibly old and settled, were once young people with exciting lives.

In the chest were painted pictures of my young flirty grandmother and my handsome uniformed grandfather. There was a pack of yellowed letters and piles of black and white photographs: my grandmother leaning into my grandfather on a New York City street and laughing with her sisters, my grandfather horsing around with sailors on a navy ship. He called her Bunny. She called him Bobby. These were my grandparents! My head buzzed with questions as I carried the artifacts upstairs. Did he fight in a war? How long did they live in New York? What was her family like?

Even though I was just a child I could see the tumult of emotions on their faces when I presented the pictures. The flickers of recognition started the stories. It was the picture of my grandfather with a tumble of filthy city boys with cigarettes hanging out of their thirteen year old mouths that caused him to smile.

“We all ran around Brooklyn together—a protestant, a Catholic, and a Jew. We went to each other’s churches and temples, and hitchhiked to Canada and back.” His voice grew quiet and his eyes glazed over. I could almost hear him wondering where they were now.

Then there was another picture of my grandmother from not so long ago, with two women startling in resemblance to her.

“My half-sisters. It turns out that my father had two wives—one here, my mom, and one in Ireland. These are his daughters from Ireland. They found me a couple of years ago and we met up.”

I was flabbergasted. She enjoyed my reaction.

It had to be on that day that my obsession with the past and its connection to the present began. I believe it’s why I write historical fiction. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than finding a photograph or a note that sparks a dozen questions that lead to a story. In my research I’ve found over and over again that these stories want to be known. Sometimes they arrive quietly, almost shyly, as a factoid in a newspaper article or a solitary figure on the periphery of a picture. Other times they come thundering out without coyness or pretense: “My father had two wives.”

My novel, HEMINGWAY’S GIRL, is set in Key West in 1935. Several years ago, I visited the Hemingway house and wanted to write about it. Then I had a dream where Ernest Hemingway told me I had to write about it. A handwritten note from Hemingway to a former lover, his angry article about the treatment of the vets working on the overseas highway left to die in a hurricane, and a photograph of a young Cuban woman at a fishing dock became the ingredients that stirred a story in me that connected the rich and poor in depression-era Key West. The story grew around the facts, and on a recent visit back to Key West I had to keep reminding myself that my protagonist didn’t really exist, though I could see her vividly in the streets and docks of town.

Once day I will write about my grandparents. Their lives would make a rich and fascinating novel. My greatest regret is that I didn’t ask my grandmother more questions while she was alive. Still, I’ll pour through her old photographs, seek interviews with children of her sisters, and comb her letters for clues to the past. If I’m lucky, she’ll visit me in a dream.

It might sound strange, but I think that chest was waiting to open me up to the past that day and I hope my stories will do the same for others.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Social WHAT? redux and Google+

By Julie

Several months ago, I posted about social media and how we were doing with it in our What Women Write group. Our improvements have been embarrassingly small, but maybe we've at least made some short strides. But I still like the photo Joan's husband caught of my look over my shoulder as I discussed Twitter.

Today, I'm thinking about Google+. I accepted an invitation and joined the masses wondering what on earth we might find different enough from Facebook to pull us over there.

I'm still scratching my head.

Here are some thoughts and rebuttals.

I went and saw. A lot of ... white space. It was honestly quite boring, but maybe that changes as you add stuff. I like the busy-ness of my Facebook pages--after all, if I'm on Facebook, I'm probably bored or trying to waste time while waiting for my dream agent to call and tell me she's in love and wants to sign me tout de suite!

I keep hearing about how the "circles" are so great--you can target who you want with your posts, photos, etc. Guess what? You can do that on Facebook with the lists you create from your friends.

A relative said she is happier about supporting the Google people than the Facebook people for personal and ethical reasons. I guess I don't really have the same beefs. I don't have faith that Google+ will handle my privacy and personal information any better or differently than Facebook. As my husband says, it's always about the bottom line. "It's the economy, stupid."

It was kind of nifty to find all my Picasa photos I hadn't seen in a while as they pull up automatically. But also a little creepy.

However ... comma ... I'm willing to be open to the marvels of something new, even if I'm a bit weary of jumping on a new social media bandwagon. At this point I think Google+ will have to create some really exciting bells and whistles that can't be duplicated quickly or easily in Facebook to get a lot of people to truly invest in another venue. If they build it, we will come--but we may not stay.

I will get my little page going for the purposes of having it at the ready, but for now, I'm leaving my heart in Facebook. (San Francisco would be a lot more exciting.)

Anyone have any input about this? Good links to share that might get my heart pumping with a little more enthusiasm? Or ... deep thoughts about anything else in the world because you aren't into the hype yet either?

Please, jump in!

Photo credit: bhermans' Flickr photostream by Creative Commons License

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Meet the Real Kim

By Kim

In my last post, I shared details about the handwriting analysis Betty Rozakis did on samples from my great-grandparents (the protagonists of The Oak Lovers). As promised, in this post I will show our readers what my writing reveals about me.

Those of you who have followed us for awhile know that I tend to be the quiet one in the What Women Write group, the one who may appear calm and observant in social situations and has no real difficultly with public speaking, yet who’s a mass of insecurity on the inside unless I’m talking with someone one-on-one. For my own analysis, I hoped to learn what my writing reveals about why I’ve always been so ill at ease in group situations.

It turns out that there may be a reason I’ve always related so well to my great-grandfather, Carl Ahrens! Here’s what Betty had to say. My own thoughts are interspersed throughout in italics.

Old Kim
Kim, you're not comfortable in social situations because you're camouflaging who you truly are and your creative forces. Stop thinking about how you communicate with the external world and focus on your individuality. Only then will you be able to evolve, progress and grow. The persona that you've chosen to portray yourself as is conservative, conformist, and non-independent! (That is the opposite of me. I’m actually quite liberal and adventurous.) You're misunderstood because you don't express yourself! People can't read your mind - stop hoarding it! I don't know how you dress…is it conservative or individualized? (You have a point. If I didn’t know me I’d take one look and think ‘frazzled Mommy pushing 40.’ Not flattering.)

You discuss an isolated childhood. Your earlier handwriting reveals sadness and there's strong evidence that you're still struggling with what you feel you should do as opposed with what you want! This is very similar to your great-grandfather Carl...were you not allowed to express yourself at home as a child? Your lack of self-confidence is similar to Carl’s. (No wonder I’ve always instinctively wanted to defend him even when he’s behaving like an a**! Hmmm…only child, isolated location, lack of appreciation for artistic pursuits by acquaintances, trying to appear perfect and blend in, happiest alone in the woods, quick temper…I share an awful lot of circumstances with my great-grandfather, as well as traits. This could be why his voice comes so easily to me while writing, and why I instinctively come up with forgivable motivations for less than stellar actions on his part.)

You feel like an 'awkward stepchild’ even among friends because you're afraid to spontaneously express yourself. You think too much! You analyze and store up sssssooo much knowledge in your head that you tend to lose perspective. (Yes, I do tend to live internally. Don't all writers do this?) You strongly identify with your family / peer group. (Yes. Family is everything to me.) You seek out adventure then become defensive. (Hmmm…) You're stubborn, determined and goal-oriented. (Me, stubborn? Well, okay, just a wee bit.) You give the impression of confidence, but feel socially inadequate. (Yep.) Your true self is more independent, cultured, active and adaptable. More creative, inventive, and productive. The outside world is the focus of your attention, but you inhabit yourself in the world of thought. Analyze less, observe more! (This explains why many people who know me on-line are puzzled when they meet me in person. Several have commented that I’m not at all what they expected. I sense disappointment and that just fuels my insecurity.)

New Kim
Some of what Betty had to say about me was hard to hear, and a few things I didn't agree with at all, but most of what she observed, without ever having met me, was amazingly accurate. For example, my tastes in many things run to the arty and eclectic, yet I wear T-shirts and cargo pants most days. I forget to put on makeup a lot. My hairstyles for the last decade or so have been ho-hum, low-maintenance, and have not displayed my personality in the slightest. My husband remembers when I’d dress sophisticated one day, theatrically the next, and in artfully ripped jeans and a hand painted (by me) Nine Inch Nails shirt on the third day. That was the girl he fell in love with, and so far he’s welcoming her back with open arms. My kids stared at my new hairstyle with horror – according to my ten-year-old I’m not supposed to look young and hip – but I’d rather have them moan a bit now than discover as adults that they never knew their mother.

I’m starting with the outside, since that’s what the world sees. Hopefully that will project the creative, sensitive, and quite approachable woman I know myself to be. I hope, when this book is out in the world, to meet many readers in person. I don't want them to scratch their heads and say to themselves that I'm much more fascinating on Facebook!

If anyone is interested in learning more about handwriting analysis, click here to go to Betty’s website.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Who are you again?

By Pamela

My husband has spent most of June and July's work weeks on the road. Last Thursday he returned from a long week of driving and visiting his employees with his boss in tow. After dinner that night, he simply got up from the table and walked out the door. I watched his back as he retreated down the sidewalk and into the neighborhood. My son asked, "What's wrong with Dad?"

My good friends Elizabeth and Joel.
I knew that look. To a much greater degree our military folks experience it when they return home from long periods of service. On one hand, they're glad to be home. On the other, they're overwhelmed when family issues and responsibilities smack them upside the head. Or when they realize: life goes on without them. And sometimes it goes on just fine. When I asked my husband later, why he just walked out the door without saying anything, he said, "I didn't think anyone would notice I was gone." 

When you put aside a manuscript, it doesn't go on without you too well. It remains there with unresolved issues, awkward sentences and all, just waiting for your expertise. Getting reacquainted with a set-aside manuscript takes some work. And even if you take the time to reread what you've already written, it still may look back at you and say, "I didn't notice you were gone."

Here are a few suggestions for reviving a work in progress:

  • Introduce a new character
  • Implement a new storyline
  • Take a chapter and rewrite it from another character's point of view
  • Change a decision a character made--if he said no to a job offer, make him say yes
  • Add a prologue, preferably from a different time period than the rest of the manuscript
  • If you already have a prologue, consider incorporating that scene into your manuscript, thereby eliminating it as such
  • Change a character's name, personality, motivation, hair color, back-story, etc.
  • Take a major scene and really amp up the conflict
  • Write a sex scene involving your main character--even if it doesn't belong and you'll toss it immediately
  • Take a scene you've written and rewrite it taking place in a different location

Any other suggestions from those of you who have resuscitated a manuscript?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Closer to Fine

By Susan

Music and literature are irrefutably linked, of course. Songs are moving poetry, and if done well, so is a good novel.
As my current work-in-progress developed in the creases of my brain, I couldn't help but listen to the music that carried the words into place. Spirituals and old hymns invaded my sleep. Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline whispered to me as I drove. And The Indigo Girls, the iconic duo that framed my college years, kept asking me: how can you bring your protagonist from her beginning to becoming Closer to Fine?
My story covers three generations. Depending on where in time my pen landed, the music followed me.
The first song that grabbed me was Wade in the Water. Here's my favorite version:

This song reminds me of childhood, sorrow, and redemption. Yet this version, by The Brotherhood, is and interesting and snappy take on the old Spiritual. I can't stop listening to it!

The next era, 1968, wasn't accompanied with hippies and LSD-- prominent markers of the music from that decade-- but with the deep bass of Johnny Cash, and his gleeful duet with his wife about cheating on each other. Jackson.

And when I got to my modern day protagonist, it wasn't the music of today that defined her. To me, it was her own development from the 80's and 90's that left musical imprints. And it was only the songs of one group that came to mind: The Indigo Girls.

How do these three songs relate? In some ways, they don't at all. A Spiritual about deliverance from slavery, a kitschy song about cheating on your spouse, and an acoustic folk rock ballad about seeking knowledge and transcendence. Yet they relate to me, and they relate to the manuscript.

In the playlist of my mind, they've helped move the story forward and make it more than it was before the music. Without these songs (and many more) I don't believe my novel would have followed the path that it took in the end.

The music paved the way.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Peas in a pod

By Julie

Last night, four of our six went on a progressive outing. I say progressive, because it didn't turn out exactly like we imagined.

A week or so ago, Elizabeth put out a call for anyone available and interested to go hear an author read at an indie book store. Several of us had enjoyed the author's previous novels, so we made a date.

Then, near the end of the week, Elizabeth read in the paper that Tatiana de Rosnay was making a guest appearance at a special screening of the movie based on her book, Sarah's Key. The very same night! As you can imagine, we all jumped over to the new boat pretty fast. Pamela and Kim were disappointed they couldn't attend because of plans already made, but life is more than authors, right?

After a little confusion due to a scheduling and venue change (and we did accuse Elizabeth of dreaming it when none of us could find a single hint of this event anywhere on the internet), we firmed up our plans.

So last night, the four of us (Elizabeth, Joan, Susan, and I) trekked from our various jobs and residences through the jungle that is Dallas traffic to the Studio Movie Grill on Royal Lane. Elizabeth arrived more than two hours early, hoping to ensure places in line for all four of us.

The traffic didn't cooperate and Joan and I both arrived only an hour or so before show time. There were tons of people already there. A couple in front of us had even brought lawn chairs and laptops to wait in relative comfort in the (thankfully indoor) line. Around seven, managers began to count off people in line, and it looked as though we had a chance of getting in as the counting kept going well past us. But VIP guests kept showing up and narrowing the field. Finally, the manager announced that those behind the four of us in line wouldn't be getting in.

Up to that point, people were fairly civil, but then it became a little dicey. A couple of ladies behind us complained loudly and not nicely that a few of our group had arrived after them and it wasn't fair.

I wasn't prepared for a free movie ticket smack down. I turned to the manager and said, "She's right. We have other things we can do, so go ahead and let them enjoy the movie." We stepped out of line quickly. (I think I was a lot nicer than she was, and was a little annoyed she didn't say thank you in return, but people are who they are. I feel good about how we handled it, and that's what really matters.)

We stood in the hot sun outside the entrance trying to make a new plan. At first, we thought we'd continue on to the author reading, but when we discovered it was 18 more miles up Central Expressway, it became an obvious no go. There was no guarantee we'd make it through the traffic in the thirty minutes before it started or that there would be seats when we got there.
So, we went for the easy and convenient plan—Thai food at a restaurant right around the corner. Aisan Mint! Good stuff!

We sat there for nearly three hours. We talked about life.

Yes, husbands and children! Our manuscripts. Food. Querying agents. Dogs. Story problems. Travel. In-laws. Ancestor and character names. Teenagers. Novels.

It's possible we touched on more topics in three hours than we'd addressed with loved ones and nearby friends in three weeks. I know I did. When we get together, there's just an instant click.

At many points, we laughed, realizing we'd gone from one topic to another to another without ever finishing the first and we had to back up for a minute.

The point is that it didn't really matter what we did last night. It didn't really matter—though we were disappointed we didn’t get to see the movie and even sadder we didn’t get to see Tatiana de Rosnay or the other author in person. Our heroes, our mentors. It didn't matter that we had to deal with the inconveniences of traffic or people being bad sports.

What mattered is that we got to see our friends with skin on instead of the usual email exchanges and occasional Facebook or text interactions. We got to see facial reactions and body language. We got to watch what dishes we each ordered—it says something! We got to snicker together about others around us that entertained or amused us. We got to laugh at each other.

We got to exchange hugs before we went our separate ways again.

We were with our tribe. Women who read. Women who write.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Summer Reading

by Joan

As a writer, one of the laborious tasks (i.e. perks) of my job is reading. I love the feel of books (read: don't yet own an ereader, though I covet one badly). But I download books through on my iPhone to listen while I'm at the gym or working around the house. Yesterday I started Amanda Hodgkinson's 22 Britannia Road and immediately became hooked.

As a contributor to this blog, I've been lucky enough to meet online other writers and readers who share the same tastes in books. Last night perk and luck came together when I posted a FB comment about my current reading obsession. Within moments, I had two more recommendations from Erika Robuck (who by the way will stop by in two weeks for a guest post. Hopefully she'll fill us in on the news about her upcoming novel, Hemingway's Girl, soon to be on everyone's list).

We began sharing novel titles with similar themes and Erika suggested these:

The Soldier's Wife, by Margaret Leroy

Letters From Home, by Kristina McMorris (see Kim's interview with Kristina here)

Scanning the book blurbs brought others to mind and I thought I'd share them here, for those like me who sometimes go a few years back for summer reading.

So, if you love novels with a backdrop of WWII and themes of love, loss, forgiveness and secrets, try these:

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Sarah Blake's The Postmistress (WWW Q&A here)

Helen Simonson's Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

Elizabeth Berg's Dream When You're Feeling Blue

Joanna Trollope's The Brass Dolphin

Anyone else have others I've missed?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Handwriting Analysis on My Protagonists

A few weeks ago author Stephanie Cowell posted an update on Facebook about meeting a woman who was able to tell a great deal about her character from the way she signs her books. Intrigued, I responded that I'd be afraid to know what my handwriting may reveal. A short time later, the lady in question, Betty Rozakis, contacted me and we started talking. She has over 20 years of experience and is the only American to have earned the Advanced Diploma from the British Academy of Graphology. I asked her if she would be able to analyze the handwriting of people who lived long ago and give some insight into their personalities. She said she could. Since the protagonists of The Oak Lovers were my great-grandparents and I happen to have quite a few handwriting samples, I jumped on the chance to find out more.

I specifically wanted to know what might have drawn seventeen-year-old Madonna to a much older, married, penniless and crippled man like Carl Ahrens. While quite handsome and a genius, he had a lot of things going against him. I also have a handwriting sample for Carl’s first wife, Emily, whom I know very little about, and wanted to know if I could learn anything about what may have soured that marriage.

Betty and I struck a deal. She asked for handwriting samples and drawings of trees, if possible, from Carl, Madonna and I. How convenient that Carl's specialty was trees!

Here are some of the things I learned, edited a bit for clarity. In this post I'll cover Carl and Madonna's analysis. I'll discuss my own in my next post.

Madonna was a highly intelligent young woman who was sensitive to other people's feelings and ready to help the withdrawn, discouraged and charming Carl. She was quite discouraged and sad herself and had a strong need for freedom, space, and air. She wanted to follow a firm path of action to allow for her ambitious creative talents. She had tall projects that she wanted to achieve. Perhaps her mother made the wrong decision for her in sending her to Roycroft. Your gifted and talented great-grandmother's character needed the systematic Boston Art School. It had more of the correct training that she craved.

She was a bit too idealistic, romantic and generous in her attitude with Carl. She had confidence in people. You stated several times that you caught your great- grandmother in a few lies. Her character needed to do the right and correct thing and took a personal obligation to 'fix' others....but in a graceful dutiful sort of way. During her marriage to Carl, she chose to cover-up and protect, she was altruistic and self-sacrificing. She had a strong sense of duty, moral courage and stamina. She was consistent, wise, loyal and traditional in her habits. She had a refined loyal calm, was comfortable with routine, but she knew how to protect herself when needed. She was sociable and amiable, but welcomed her time alone. She was quite vigilant and constrained her feelings. Her basic nature needed to have fun and relax along with introspective creativity. She was more able to achieve this once Carl passed away.

As for Carl, you mentioned that his mother never forgave him for choosing his father over her. From her handwriting I can tell that she was an undisciplined woman, more of a pleasure seeking type. Could it be that Carl's father preferred to squash his son's spirit with strict conformity? It doesn't seem possible that a young boy in that environment would be allowed such a choice. Carl's early handwriting reflects this.

During Carl's early years his character needed to conform in order to survive emotionally, an imposed persona, a stereotyped social attitude. This imposed convention percolated deep in his subconscious. His true self was buried underneath the scars of a wounded human dignity. Discipline - to 'soldier on' against all the odds – a silent misery. He had apparent tolerance, apparent sociability, apparent easy communication, but this imposed compliance, social imitation, and forced adaptation created HAVOC for his subconscious. His buried nature wanted to fight, hit back, break through, hence the 'fighting trees'. As a result – neuroses, fantasies, viciousness, brutality, all hidden behind a 'civilized' easy-going no nonsense social attitude. He was mistrustful, had hypocritical behaviors, extreme skepticism, arrogance and lack of common sense. His marriage to Emily perpetuated his squashed subconscious. From her writing I can tell she had a strict unyielding demeanor. She needed to protect and control and had an intrusive, insensitive character.

When Carl met Madonna she triggered the spontaneous emotional experiences that his character craved. It was a meeting of two subconscious souls....both in need. Carl feared emotional pain and compensated by engaging in pleasurable pursuits. He had a constant need for more.

By 1912 [at the height of his fame] Carl gained a self-confidence that didn't exist pre Madonna. He was dynamic, and enterprising but still needed to escape and expand and grow. He was jovial, expressive, sensual and had a targeted purpose. Unfortunately, Carl was unable to reconcile his innermost individuality with the imposed veneer of his upbringing. He hid his unspoken misery in the world of his dreams, as depicted in his trees.

After reading Betty's analysis, I was pleased to discover that she saw the same people I saw, and this confirmed my view that I had them "right."

Stop back two weeks from today and, as Betty would say, have coffee with Kim's subconscious. If you are interested in learning more about handwriting analysis, click here to go to Betty’s website.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Wrong Word? Guilty!

by Elizabeth

I can't resist a good deal, and so when my favorite yogurt place offered a small for just a Bicentennial quarter over the holiday weekend, I dug through my stash of change and found enough to keep me in frosty heaven through the sweltering holiday. By Monday, I was sated enough to be generous, and so donated the last coin to my son so he could indulge in a cup of boysenberry.

Into the shop we went, and noticed the new signs the yogurt company had provided. They looked fresh, clean, and were good competition for the influx of new treat shops around town. Guilt-free, they proclaimed, and I'm telling you, that yogurt is. Low cal, tasty (peanut butter is my favorite. Peanut butter!!!), and a great stop when with a diabetic pal, there is nothing but satisfaction in that cup of yogurt.

But there was never any guilt, I realized. Guilt? Over food? I dumped that a long time ago.

My first real internet commitment was to Weight Watchers, and for nearly a decade I was a daily poster on the chat boards. That was my meeting, and it's where I honed the new skills that has kept my weight happy for longer than my kids have been in public school. But better than that, it's where I learned and later preached good sense (you can ask the Women: I'm a Weight Watchers evangelist, even now). And one major bit of wisdom is and was this: no one should ever feel guilt over food. It's fueling your body, and if you eat too much, well, then you did. But guilt? No way.

And here's another that has long irked me: when people (women, right?) say they are "bad" because they ate a gooey brownie or pizza or a plate of enchiladas. All delicious, all things that I enjoy and have from the time I began losing the weight I've yet to re-find. Here's the deal: what you eat has no bearing on whether you are good or bad. If you kill puppies for fun, then yeah, I'd call you a bad person; if you eat a hot fudge ate a hot fudge sundae. Our morality is not tied to our stomachs, and people who dump that mindset are more likely to have a healthy relationship with food and their bodies. Period.

Sure, there are foods that should be eaten with greater moderation. That's just good sense. We need fuel, we don't necessarily need M&Ms or fettucini alfredo. But eating them does not make us bad, no more than exercising with reason rather than spending four hours in the gym seven days a week makes us good. (Can you imagine? I can barely drag myself there four hours a week.) Consider it in non-physical terms. What we eat determines our value no more than how long it takes us to paint our nails. If I use the quick dry polish and am out of there in two minutes flat, a sloppy job leaving spare paint bleeding onto my toe skin, am I any less "good" than the woman who walks out of a salon after an hour and a half with silky feet and perfect digits? Neither of these activities has anything to do with our value as humans, and I can't think of anyone who wouldn't scoff if such an idea was suggested. So why do we do that with food?

Ah, but what does this have to do with writing? Sorry about that: my days as a Weight Watchers pontificator got the best of me.

I wanted to say this: reading that "guilt-free" sign made me realize that while I absolutely do eat that yogurt without guilt, that's true of everything I eat, and I fervently believe that should be true for everyone, always. However, this is 2011, and the reality of a comfortable life is that many people still struggle with that. But as my son spooned up his treat, I realized that for me, that yogurt is angst-free. That's a better word for it. And I realized it better caught the meaning of what it is people (women) deal with over food.

Guilt versus angst. The latter is a better description of what I'd hope people (women) would feel if they have to feel anything at all over what they eat.

Guilt: the fact or state of having committed an offense, crime, violation, or wrong, especially against moral or penal law; culpability.

Food? A crime? No, no, no. Better:

Angst: an acute but nonspecific sense of anxiety or remorse.

All right: I don't love acute, but this is more like it. You ate something, you wish you hadn't, you feel some remorse, and you move on. That's it.

In writing, what a difference. And there are plenty of other examples. Jealous, envious. Similar, yet different, and so often we rely on the former when really the latter is what we mean. I'm certainly envious of Pamela's quiet good sense and Susan's higher purpose in her work, but do I resent them for it? No, but if I did, then I would be jealous.

As writers, we deal with words. It's imperative--scratch that: important--to choose the correct one. Several of the Women here are nearing submission of manuscripts, and red pens and tracking changes have been busy helping them finalize. I know that there have been many instances when I've suggested an alternative word, and sometimes that suggestion will be taken, sometimes discarded, and that's fine. (Really, Joan: it's fine!) The point is, words matter, precision matters, choice matters.

Though if we do choose the wrong word, that's okay. No guilt allowed.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Escaping the Ho-hum

By Pamela

Last night I lounged comfortably in my lawn chair and trained my eyes heavenward for the explosions of fireworks that were launched from a sports complex about a mile away. While I sat among friends and family, I couldn't help feeling a little jaded as the first boom rumbled through the night. Really, each one pretty much looked like the ones I'd watched last year. And the year before that. And, if I could remember that far back, the ones I saw 20, 30, 40 years ago.

But then a plane flew by. And another one, and I said to my neighbor, "That's the way to watch fireworks! I'm putting that on my bucket list." She agreed and then told me that she and her husband huddled under an umbrella in Singapore to watch a fireworks competition! a couple of years ago, and I thought, Yes! That would be cool too.

Similar challenges present themselves in writing. Sure you can view the explosion of the latest trend in fiction and decide to climb into the fracas, but unless you up the ante somehow--really create a kaboom!--your story will go unnoticed by the gatekeepers who dictate your fate.

Recently I submitted the first ten pages of my WIP to a competition to get some feedback regarding my story. I was pleased by most of the reviewer's comments but found my 'hook' portion in need of some work. And I knew that, really, so I've put some thought into how my story unfolds and am playing with a character making a decision I didn't have planned out in addition to getting out of my comfort zone.

It reminded me of an interview I saw months ago when the movie "The Dilemma" came out. Vince Vaughn explained the process of plotting the movie's path and, after I watched the movie on DVD with my son the other day, I talked him through the hook, remembering Vince doing basically the same to promote the film. (Spoiler alert!)

I told my son that the premise of the movie probably started with: What if a guy sees his best friend's wife with another man? Should he tell him? Then they upped the stakes. What if they weren't just friends but also business partners? AND they were in the middle of a business deal that would make or break them so the timing wasn't great. AND what if the guy who saw the affair had slept with the friend's wife a long time ago, before she met her husband? AND what if the guy's wife told the friend that she'd deny the affair and blame the friend for coming on to her? AND what if the guy who saw the whole thing wasn't all that trustworthy himself, like maybe he had a history of gambling addiction? 

So, at first glance you have a dilemma: A guy sees his friend's wife with another man. Which becomes THE Dilemma--something much more than: Will my friend be upset if he learns the truth about his wife?--when the stakes are upped. 

When the fireworks become a competition and we view them from the sky instead of the safety of our comfortable lawn chair, THEN we have a story.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Take Me There

By Susan

It's the fourth of July weekend, and I worked from home today. Happy to avoid the 30 mile commute to my office in Dallas traffic, happy to be home rather than cursing my dashboard in the Texas heat, fighting frantic drivers who are fighting to get out of town. Happy to be going nowhere this weekend.

But also sad. My co-worker is leaving tomorrow for Ghana while I hold down the fort. A group from my church left for Ethiopia yesterday and just landed in Addis Ababa. In two weeks, a group of friends of mine leave for Rwanda, another friend is currently in South Africa, working the slums of Soweto, and two other teams I know left for Ghana this week, and will cross paths with my co-workers there.

I've got Africa on my mind, and Dallas is the last place on earth I want to be.

I'm taking this weekend, instead of travelling or battling the Dallas freeways, to work on my manuscript. Interestingly enough, while my mind wanders to Africa, what I am focusing on in my revisions this weekend is the setting for my novel. Place.

It's interesting how we can be defined by our location. The desire to travel, the yearning for home, or the distaste for the city on a Fourth of July weekend all are rooted in exactly where you are. The setting can either change everything or effect nothing in fiction, but either choice you make must be deliberate. I say make your setting a character.

Although my work-in-progress is primarily based in Kentucky, where I grew up, I'm also writing about places that I've never been, and instead of memory painting the picture I must allow imagination to create that landscape. In writing about India, I researched the monasteries and local customs specific to Darjeeling. I thought about all five senses in creating a believable setting, especially because of the richness of my choice. I've been to Africa, and I cannot think about it without remembering the very distinct smell, or the colors of the sunrise over the Gulf of Guinea, or the sounds of the children singing as they walk, buckets perched on their heads, to gather water. I hear the drums. How can I translate that kind of detail to a place never visited?

But when I write about Kentucky, I can taste the richness of fresh fruit from the farmer's market, and feel the rolling hills of the horse farms as they seem to move under my feet, or see the lightning bugs rise from the earth on a cool summer evening. I hear the twang of the local dialect, and I can smell the honeysuckle vines randomly wrapped around barbed wire fences.

Hopefully, with either place, I can paint those images in your mind too, whether they are places I have been or settings I have only imagined. The key is believing it, and creating a space for the reader that is realistic, whether you've been there or not.

The key to a good setting is to make it real to the reader with details and descriptions that only come with experiences, even if sometimes, they are only the experiences you've imagined. So this weekend my task is to focus on place. To make sure that as my characters walk the landscape, you are walking it with them. Whether it be a small southern state you have never visited, or a far-flung monastery in India, I want to take you there.
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